Water Rights and Global Conflict in 2023

Dwindling water resources are causing conflict between countries with shared access to water basins, but could such conflicts escalate into all-out wars?

Image credit: Shutterstock / Katja Tsvetkova

We once again find ourselves in troubled times as the year 2023 is coming to a close.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for over 600 days, without any prospects for peace on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the latest resurfacing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in October, 2023, has claimed more lives than ever before over the past 50 years.

The Caucasus has been under the specter of war since Azerbaijan launched yet another offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh back in September 2023.

And, on top of everything else, China seems to be eyeing Taiwan with intent. It seems that, regrettably, the dogs of war are being unleashed one after another.

All of these wars are being fought over territorial claims—just like most wars throughout the history. Land claims, however, are not the only causes of military conflict. Water claims, too, can push countries to the brink of war.

As ecological change continues to make some parts of the world more arid, we see heated exchanges between neighboring countries over water rights.

Egypt and Ethiopia

Since the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (DERD) on the Blue Nile River (one of the main tributaries to the Nile River), there has been tension between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt believes that such a massive gravity dam undermines the rights of downstream users including Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia, with its rapidly growing population, however, maintains that it has every right to use the water for agricultural and industrial purposes.

“As climate change accelerates, the Nile dispute has entered a new era of complexity, prompting regional states to compete for water, food, and energy security,” in the words of Gashaw Ayferam from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Thankfully, no act of aggression has taken place so far, and Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan participated in a two-day talk in Addis Ababa in September 2023, which is expected to be succeeded by a series of other negotiations.

India and Pakistan

India and Pakistan have quite a few ongoing disputes, including over the Kashmir region.

But they also have a dispute over the distribution of the water flowing in the Indus River and its many tributaries.

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was brokered by the World Bank in 1960 and signed Karachi. According to the treaty, the rights to use 70% of the annual flow belongs to Pakistan, whereas India gets 30%.

However, Islamabad and New Delhi have repeatedly accused each other of violating the IWT.

n 2016 and following an attack from Pakistani soil on Indian Army brigades, India threatened to end the treaty, though later in 2020 India reaffirmed its adherence to the letter and spirit of the treaty.

In 2023, New Delhi sent a notice to Islamabad on second thoughts, demanding a modified water treaty, which was largely ignored by the Pakistani side.

“India and Pakistan are playing a dangerous game in the Indus Basin,” notes the analyst Daniel Haines in a 2023 article published by the United States Institute of Peace.

But hopefully the two Asian nuclear powers will be able to resolve the situation through diplomatic means, as both sides have so far shown restraint.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

These two Central Asian republics have a history of border clashes since the end of the Soviet era.

After the sudden collapse of the USSR in December, 1991, borders between the former Soviet republics remained largely unclear, which has been the source of resentment between neighbors from Central Asia to the Caucasus.

The Azerbaijani-Armenian clash which has been in progress on-and-off for two decades is a case in point. The skirmishes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are, in a loosely similar way, the result of yet another instance of poorly drawn borders.

Although the two Central Asian republics have never been at each other’s throats, they came quite close to an all-out war in 2021-2022. After sporadic exchanges of fire and even shelling of border checkpoints, each country blamed the other side, until a ceasefire agreement was signed in September, 2022.

In addition to old territorial claims, the 2022 escalation was due to water right claims. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have serious disputes over water resources of the Syr Darya basin along a third of their 1,000-kilometer long shared border.

Since the two landlocked and relatively arid countries are in need of water resources, there is no telling that the disputes will not resurface in the future.

Mali and Niger

“Conflicts in the Sahel region are mounting,” warned the United Nation’s Relief Web in June 2022, while explaining that water disputes across the Inner Niger Delta is the main cause of the crisis.

The tide of the Niger River follows a seasonal rhythm, which has led to a competition between Niger and Mali in the use of water during the high tide.

To make matters worse, the high tide season has become shorter due to climate change in recent years.

This would have been a worrying situation anywhere, but it is more so in Mali, where there is also an internal conflict in progress between the northern and southern parts of the country.

Indeed the civil war between insurgent groups and the central government has made the situation within Mali highly critical, with insurgents and their affiliates fighting over the right to access water resources.

In the absence of political stability in Mali and the recent military coup in Niger, reaching a resolution is unlikely, to say nothing of the shared efforts required to protect the Niger River basin.

Final notes

While disputes over water resources are not new, we can see that climate change and overpopulation have been worsening the situation.

What is more, those stakeholder nations which enjoy political stability and governments with an effective foreign policy have a better chance of resolving their disputes with their neighbors through political discourse.